Saturday, 22 March 2008

Behind the Curveball

Der Spiegel today has more, much more, on its investigation into "Curveball", the Iraqi defector who provided the Americans with a great deal of bogus intelligence about Saddam Hussein's supposed biological weapons programmes. They make a convincing case that the source, who they name as "Rafed", was a fantasist who greatly exaggerated his importance and knowledge. How much responsibility he actually had in starting the Iraq war is rather less clear.

Among other tidbits, we learn that doubts about Curveball's reliability surfaced early - long before war in Iraq was even being contemplated. Spiegel mention a doctor from the US Defense Department, who had met Rafed in 2000 and who "sent emails for years warning as many as he could within the US intelligence community". The doctor noticed that the source "had a strong smell of alcohol on his breath" and that the German intelligence agent in charge of debriefing Curveball "seemed to have fallen in love" with him. Meanwhile,

The British secret service had expressed its doubts openly as early as 2001, after an expert from MI6 used a pretext to arrange a meeting with “Curveball." He came to the conclusion that elements of "Curveball's" behavior "strike us as typical of fabricators."

And were the Germans, whose government opposed military intervention in Iraq, really so keen to supply the evidence that would persuade the world of the case for war? It seems odd, to say the least. And, of course, the Americans were more than willing to be persuaded. As were other people, and I don't just mean Tony Blair.

Particularly telling are the full texts of the interviews with Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff to Colin Powell, and the former weapons inspector David Kay. They strike noticeably different attitudes. Kay is full of anger and incomprehension at the German BND. He claims that the relationship between the BND and the CIA was "horrible and toxic", and complains that the BND obstructed attempts by CIA people to interview Curveball, "a blockade that made it impossible for any other service to validate his information". He gives a hilarious account of an occasion when the CIA, attempting to track the source down in Munich, knocked on the wrong door. The young Iraqi at the address "called the police to deal with the intruders" - which suggests that they didn't knock very politely.

Kay maintains that the BND "did not live up to their responsibilities or to the level of integrity you would expect from such a service." And he attributes the Germans' gullibility to "a desire to believe. Fabricators work best when there is a desire to believe." But was this not equally true of the Americans? When he got to Iraq, found nothing, and reported on his lack of success, he was met "with resistance and denial" and "an absolute refusal to face reality. I just kept on hearing, 'don’t stop now. Keep working. You must be wrong. You will find it. Keep looking.'" He is, he now admits, disillusioned:

I think that 'Curveball' was the biggest and most consequential intelligence fiasco of my lifetime. It shows how important effective civilian control of the intelligence services is, because non-transparency is extraordinarily dangerous for democracy. In an intelligence service, people who don’t make waves are rewarded. I am worried that the same mistakes could be repeated all over again.

Wilkerson is equally disillusioned, and a great deal more contrite. He thinks that the Germans deserve some share of the blame (though not as much as the CIA), and is of the opinion that Curveball's information was "absolutely essential, because it was the central pillar for the accusation that Saddam Hussein had mobile biological labs". But he's willing to admit that even with that bogus evidence the case for war was pretty thin. He recalls thinking that Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council - which he helped to draft - had been "a total failure":

The whole time I looked over at the Iraqi ambassador and I thought to myself: 'Jeez, this is all circumstantial bullshit, it will never wash.' After I had gotten some sleep and then read a few newspapers, I realized the polls were saying it had been significantly effective.

He now calls that day "the lowest point of my professional life". But why was it so effective? Why were so many people - not just in the CIA, not just in the American and British governments, but also in an initially sceptical Congress, in a House of Commons dominated by Labour MPs many of whom had once belonged to CND, and in the wider public, a majority of whom on both sides of the Atlantic backed the war when it began and for a surprisingly long time thereafter?

Here's an illuminating quote.

Of course the people don't want war... But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along... All you have to do is to tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.

Who said that? Appropriately enough, it was a German. Hermann Goering.